Sotomayor, pork and the meaning of Latino


This 2001 speech by Supremes candidate Sonia Sotomayor is raising  hackles because of her remarks to the effect of: Old man: wise; old Latina woman: even wiser.

Ben Smith at Politico uncovers something even more unsettling — her taste for pig flesh:

For me, a very special part of my being Latina is the mucho platos de arroz, gandoles y pernir — rice, beans and pork — that I have eaten at countless family holidays and special events. My Latina identity also includes, because of my particularly adventurous taste buds, morcilla, — pig intestines, patitas de cerdo con garbanzo — pigs’ feet with beans, and la lengua y orejas de cuchifrito, pigs’ tongue and ears.

I’ve just written about Sotomayor’s close ties to the Jewish community and how much she loved Israel on her two visits there. That said, dinner at her home might be, um, a problem.

I mean, feet, ears, tongue and intestines — is there a part not on the menu?

On another matter, covered by Ami, no: Cardozo was not the first Latino judge. I’m Sephardic, my parents spoke Ladino as a first language, and I would never consider myself  "Hispanic." It would be hugely presumptuous to do so.

First of all, language is the critical signifier in such a designation (something Sotomayor addresses in her speech). I’m pretty sure Benjamin Cardozo was born generations after his ancestors stopped speaking the language. Bill Richardson and Sotomayor do speak the language. (And eat the pig feet!)

It’s more complex than that, even for those of my parents’ generation who spoke the language. The story of Spanish-speaking Jewry is the story of a slow, inevitable death, of culture, of language. My ancestors left Spain and Portugal with two identities: Jewish and Spanish. Spanish identity passed long ago. Jewish attachment, at least comparatively, thrived.

Why is anyone’s guess: Why remain attached to a culture that reviled you? And then, Turks and Greeks were likelier to identify my ancestors as Jews than as Spanish speakers — and how you’re defined in your surroundings is critical, no matter how autonomous we imagine identity to be.

And yet, and yet: My parents both traveled to Spain as soon as it opened up, in Franco’s final years. They loved being able to deplane and converse freely with the locals as easily as if they had landed in New Zealand. They loved the questions they got about their accents. They toured the synagogues-turned-churches and brought back colorful picture books. They loved that Eydie Gorme, a New York-born Sephardia, recorded an album in Spanish that was a massive hit in Latin America.

And yet, and yet: When I was 13 and bought my mother a record of romanceros, traditional Ladino ballads, for her birthday, she couldn’t listen to more than a track without weeping. She was fiercely proud as a Jew, and eventually immensely proud that I moved to Israel, but she made it clear she didn’t want any further reminders of this past. This was a culture that was slowly but surely crushed, by the Spanish queen, then by Hitler, then by the ultranationalistic homogeneity that swept through the Balkans in the last century, and then by the exhaustion of its preservation. What did it mean, what was it worth, to speak Spanish? Judaism had meaning that reached into notions of God, of our place among our families, among ourselves, in the world. Spanish was a  … language.  Had my parents returned to Turkey (they briefly considered it, after a few bone-chilling Canadian winters)  I would have belonged to the generation that would speak Turkish, that would reject Ladino as poltically incorrect.

My parents spoke Ladino, my older sisters understood it, I could piece together a little here and there, and I’m emblematic of this generation’s Sephardic Jew.

I researched a little, and uncovered a few things about the past my parents weaned me away from: Durme, Durme, for instance, a traditional lullaby that featured on the album that drove my mother to tears. I asked my sisters if they remembered the song; they, born in Turkey, did; I, born in Montreal, did not. My mother sang me songs from the 1930s and 1940s movies that had made North America her ambition: "Shine on Harvest Moon" and "When I’m Calling You" (with its ridiculous notion of how Mounties pursued snowbound maidens). Not "Durme Durme."

Ten or so years ago, I visited Salonika for the first time in my life. (My mother”s family, descended from vintners, took its name from a vine laden valley to its north; two of my grandparents were born there; another ancestor earned the honorific "Pasha" functioning as a kind of treasurer to the provincial leader in the late 19th century.)  I stayed with Greek friends, and when they asked about my (Greek-sounding) last name, I would try to explain but it was like enthusing about vespas at a bikers rally: It was all about Greeks vs. Turks. What was this about the Jews? No one even knew that the city once had a Jewish plurality; they were vaguely aware of a Jewish quarter.

My Greek friends were otherwise immensely hospitable, and wondered how a grandson of Greeks could not handle the language and insisted on calling me Ronnus and plying me with retsina. At one point, I couldn’t take much more and retired to a bedroom over the balcony.

I closed my eyes and drifted into the suspended region between sleep and wakefulness. I heard one of my hosts asking my girlfriend where I was. She explained, and he laughed and started singing "Durme Durme."

I snapped out of my hangover and ran downstairs: How did you know that song? Did you know it was a Jewish song?

He shrugged: It was "around." He had heard the song "around."

As if I had lost it. Except I didn’t. It never really belonged to me.

Cardozo doesn’t need the "first Hispanic" honorific. We don’t need to claim it for him.

It’s enough that he was a proud Jew.

Recommended from JTA